One of the songs I do not like singing in worship is Isaac Watts’ “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed.” The song as originally written really helps us feel as wicked as possible and even compares us to a worm.
Alas! and did my Savior bleed
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
I came from a family system that might actually enforce that worm image in me, that shame that plagues so many Middle Easterners (and Central Pennsylvanians). I already feel not good enough and now God thinks of me that way too? That he would burn me in hell like a spider dangling from a thread above a flame, just like that, if he felt like it?
It took me a long time to believe people when they told me that God loved me. I didn’t believe I was created to be loved and I didn’t believe that even if God restored me that my carnal nature would ever be solved.
I really thought that I was totally depraved, unable to do anything good without a total submission to God. That haunted me as I kept sinning as a teenager and I could never seem to get out of the crippling pressure I received from the people who were supposed to love me and God, the Father.
The negative self-image that can be so often tattooed on us by well-meaning Christians is a challenge to undo. Sometimes we try to be perfect to fix it. Or we judge someone else as harshly as we do ourselves when she is not perfect. We could just become indifferent and don’t even bother to do the right thing because we’ll never be perfect anyway. We might develop a false image of self-confidence and spread our narcissism on others, demanding their support and affirmation, and forming nothing of our own within ourselves. Might as well drink and smoke until we can just forget the pain.
But, I believe that God restores us. Restores us to who we were created to be. Restores back to his image. Our sin is not greater than the one whose image we are created in. God is still alive. Jesus conquered death. And we can live and do good today through Him. Edwards and Calvin and all those other guys are right–without God, we can’t do any good. But without God, we’d be dead, not just evil.
Being made whole and complete, turning away from our fallen nature or carnal selves is something that Jesus does in us right when we follow Him. He restores us. He recreates us. Paul makes this clear in Romans 6.
Paul is making a major philosophical argument here. In this famous passage he utters a phrase that we often need to hear now. If it’s free, won’t people take advantage of it? If it’s abundant, doesn’t it lose its value? If I don’t have to be obedient and follow all the rules to become redeemed, won’t people just act evil? If I’m too gracious, won’t someone take advantage of me? Paul inverts the typical capitalist idea that scarcity is what makes things valuable.
Paul argues that without grace, we are slaves. We are slaves to sinning—our own selfish desire and pleasure. Or slaves to obedience—making sure we follow every law and rule perfectly. We are going to fail and fall short, yes.
Paul thanks God that we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to Righteousness, slaves to God. We have been set free. This notion is that we are freed from the curse of our sin and the curse of our carnal selves. We are made pure. The Kingdom of Heaven is within us again.
And no! It isn’t an excuse to sin, but in time and through a process, our desire won’t be to sin. We can become perfected through Jesus, because we are the perfect vessels for his Spirit and the perfect laborers for his Kingdom.
A few weeks ago, when we were talking about atonement theory, there were a few ideas that described Jesus freeing us from our captors. This image is clearly seen here as Paul utters it: we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God. Who has bought us, freed us, and leads us. We are no longer shackled to ourselves, and that is true freedom.
In the U.S., we often think of freedom and liberty as doing what we want to do. But self-centered libertarianism is hollow. Being a slave to ourselves corrodes our soul and ultimately leaves us dissatisfied. There is not enough to go around. When we aren’t shackled to God and connected to a community, when I take, you lose and when you take, I lose. But in the new creation, we are attached to God, we’ve gained holiness, and eternal life. In eternity, there is nothing to lose as we share all in common. We are beginning to do that now.
For me, the greatest evidence that we are not worms and that we are made pure and whole is that gift from God through Jesus. It is so powerful, it changes and transforms who we are! We are children of God, who ran away from him like the Prodigal Son, but when we returned he embraced us with wide open arms. We aren’t worms! God loves us.
Yes, Jonathan Edwards is right: the wages of sin is death. But that’s not the end of the verse.
The gift of God is eternal life! LIFE! Eternity starts now, right in you, right in the community. The curse has been lifted, we can be made whole and complete. We don’t have to work so hard to be good, and feel so bad when we fail. Our conscious alone probably indicates that our carnal nature never really took over, because God’s grace is bigger than our own sin, but it is hard to fight. Our upbringings embolden our false selves and made our true selves seem more distant. And pretty soon we are operating with hard hearts, bitter souls, and injured bodies. We can be vengeful, spit vitriol, and just be plain mean people. I suppose we can act like worms sometimes. But the first step to changing that is by thinking you aren’t, by letting God enter you and redeem you, and offer you that gift of eternal life.
To protect ourselves, we have developed false selves. These false selves form because of the wounds we feel when we are younger, current pain and damage in relationships, and yes because we are not born whole and complete. We need Jesus to find our true selves. But the assent to salvation alone won’t be enough. We need to be intentional and conscious, digging up why we are, who we are. As we do that, we will know who God is more, and we’ll know how to follow him more.
So go to therapy. Talk to a professional all about your pain and difficulties, your worries and desires. Learn about yourself and the woundedness that has come to define you. Become more than that. It will take a lifetime to really do this process well, and a good therapist and your intentionality can go a long way.
Pray and mediate. Practice a spiritual discipline, or turn your regular disciplines (diet, exercise, reading, or whatever) into a spiritual one. Strive to be one with God. Read the Scriptures prayerfully. Center on God in prayer. Be alone. Contemplate. Ruminate. Carve out time for just you and God and see how you can get closer to the one who made you whole, and see if that doesn’t make you better.
Know how you are limited, but don’t be afraid to push past your limitations. Don’t judge yourself for your shortcomings, but embrace them, and be healed by the wounded healer. Become aware of who you are, what your tendencies are, and become friends with them. Then proceed past them holding on to your new nature in Jesus, but know your boundaries and know that you are still limited even as you slay the dragons in your life. Join a cell even if you don’t feel like you have time to. Come to a PM even though it makes you anxious. Give to the common fund even though you think you’re broke as a joke. Don’t break up because the relationship isn’t filled with fireworks. Talk to someone you don’t know even though you are an introvert. Stay in on Friday even though you’ll be missing out (if you’re an extravert).
Finally tell someone about it. About your process of hope and redemption. How you were made whole. Love them and embrace them. Share your hope of newness with the world. We need you.